I recently dropped in on a yoga class, which I later found out was a Level 4. Typically I don't just "drop in," but I'm new in town and seeking a yoga community. After telling the receptionist that I've been a teacher for more than 20 years, she circled a few classes, including the Level 4.
Well, I ended up doing “sit-on-my-asana” for most of the class. Some of the flow was too fast to do with proper form and alignment, let alone a calm breath. After the teacher tried to adjust me without my permission into a variation of cobra pose (Bhujangasana) that would have destabilized my sacroiliac joint, and then went on to do another five backbends without, in my opinion, enough warm up, I exited the scene. Namaste.
The receptionist asked me what was up, and when I told her I felt uncomfortable, she said; “Well, it is an advanced class.”
For a moment, her comment made me feel badly about my practice, like I wasn't bendy enough. I always approach the mat with a beginner's mind, but as a teacher, it's hard to put aside a sense of responsibility for staying safe, in tune with breath and sensation, while accepting the challenge to grow.
Two decades ago, I was sitting with my teacher and announced that I wanted to advance in yoga. He just smiled and talked about how the goal of yoga was a calm mind, and a wholehearted approach to life.
So here are the 3 things I reminded myself about getting better in yoga:
1. Yoga isn’t about chasing a level, it's about being present where you are.
For me, in this case, listening to my body showed me I had learned to honor myself rather than disrespect my limitations, which can fluctuate.
2. It is more personal than physical.
Not all poses are suitable for everyone, or at least, should be modified so their needs are met. For some people "Level 4" challenges are not realistic; they are still learning and have nothing to feel bad or guilty about if that doesn't change. Challenge is relative and that is the only constant truth about that.
3. In yoga, every stage is a stepping stone.
You know where you are, where you have been, and where you are headed, and every stage is a stepping stone, even in asana, it is all organic.
Yes, students: be realistic and listen to studio guidelines!
Studios: give extremely accurate descriptions of your classes so students know exactly what they are getting. Ultimately though, do not let anyone define yoga as if it was an audition for the Cirque Du Soleil. Advancement is internal, ultimately, and happens to us in a unique and individual way.